Four British missionaries, which include a former GP from Cambridge, David Donovan, and his wife, Shirley Donovan, were abducted from their accommodation in a remote part of Nigeria’s Delta State late last Friday night. The other two victims were identified by police as “Alana” and “Tyan”. The GP and his wife, both 57, operate four clinics that offer free medical treatment, including immunisations and natal classes.
The British missionaries were working with a charity in the Niger Delta area. The Donovans went to Nigeria in 2003. Four years later they set up a boat clinic. They had been operating a series of clinics there for the past 14 years, despite the high risk across Delta State from abductors, armed robbers and pirates.
The gang thought to be responsible is known for making ransom demands.
Zanna Ibrahim, Delta’s police commissioner, said the prime suspects were a local militant group called the Karowei, and that the abducting may have been in response to “Operation Crocodile Smile”, a recent law and order operation.
“The abduct may not be unconnected with the present onslaught on militant activities embarked upon by the military, code named Operation Crocodile Smile,” Mr Ibrahim said.
Mr Ibrahim spoke as his officers paraded 14 abduct suspects before local media, including five accused of being involved in the missionaries’ abducting. He also alleged that the leader of the Karowei gang was responsible last month for abducting a member of the Delta state assembly, Mrs Ekpongbolo Preyor, who was later released.
Mr Ibrahim said that a joint task force would make a rescue attempt without risking their lives.
The British charity, called New Foundations, that the missionaries work with describes its aim as “to train, resource and remunerate local workers, and to partner with government and other NGO’s in work that is driven and underpinned through a faith in Jesus Christ.”
Much of the missionaries is done in the Delta’s so-called “riverine” areas – dense swamps and creeks accessible only by boat. The Foreign Office advises against travelling to such areas because they lie mostly beyond the reach of the law and are havens for militant groups.
While such groups generally target oil workers based in nearby Port Harcourt for abduct, other Westerners can also be considered a target.
Unlike militants, the Islamic militant group that operates in north-east Nigeria, such abductings are usually carried out for ransom and are resolved relatively quickly.
Chief Theo Fakama, from the local Enukorowa community, said villagers were upset by the abducting as the missionaries had “brought succour to residents of the community for the past three years”.
Mr Ibrahim, the police commissioner, said that an anti-abducting team was “already on the trail of the suspects”.
Four people have been arrested in connection with the abducting of four British nationals in southern Nigeria, police said on Thursday. Delta state police spokesman Andrew Animaka said there was still no update as to their whereabouts.
But he added: “We are following up on a lead with the arrest of four persons in connection with the incident. The suspects are currently in the custody of the state police command, in (the state capital) Asaba, and are rendering useful information. I can assure that we are on the heels of the abductors.”
A spokesman for the charity said it was liaising with the British Foreign Office.
The missing GP is understood to be an evangelical Christian, and has two university-educated sons also working for the mission. They are not understood to be among those abducted.
Last weekend an Italian priest, Maurizio Pallu, was abducted outside Benin City, the capital of neighbouring Edo State. He was released in good health after spending three days held in a forest.
A previous abducting victim in Nigeria was Chris McManus, 28, a quantity surveyor from Oldham who was working for an engineering company in the northern city of Bernin Kebbi when he was abducted by a militant Islamist group. His abductors killed him during a raid to free him carried out by a joint team of British special forces and local troops in March 2013.
The Niger Delta holds most of Nigeria’s crude oil and attracts many foreign nationals to work there.
There have been a number of attacks on energy plants in the area over the past year, but none so far in 2017.
Abducting for ransom is a common problem in parts of Nigeria. A number of foreigners have, in the last few years, been abducted in the Niger Delta region, which holds most of the country’s crude oil – the country’s economic mainstay.